Editor’s note: This is the first of a three-part series looking at Mill Creek’s history as the city approaches its 20th anniversary.
Bill Garhart and his sister, Nanette, can stand at the corner of 164th Street SE and the Bothell-Everett Highway, right in the heart of Mill Creek’s business district, and say, honestly, “there used to be a farm here.”
Such a revelation might come as a surprise to the thousands of drivers passing through the city’s busiest intersection each day, but it wasn’t that long ago that the area was once a working farm.
For 36 years, from 1931 to 1967, 768 acres of what is now the city of Mill Creek was a working farm – Lake Dell Farm – producing a variety of fruits and vegetables, raising livestock, and even some timber harvesting.
“It’s just unbelievable how it’s changed,” said Bill Garhart, who lives on five acres in the Clearview area just southeast of Mill Creek.
Today, Lake Dell Farm is a distant memory, but there is still one reminder of those bygone days. At the 164th-Bothell-Everett intersection, on the northeast corner, right behind the brick Mill Creek sign, lies a memorial the family installed. A plaque commemorates Bill and Nanette’s parents, Dr. Manch Neville Garhart and Henrietta Klopfer Garhart. Two rows of roses, Henrietta’s favorite flowers, adorn the plaque.
The family’s history with the land that became Mill Creek dates back to 1931, just as the Great Depression took hold. Henrietta had just passed away, and Manch purchased 14 acres in present-day Mill Creek, all part of an effort to bring in money during hard times. Most people paid for his services by bartering, offering produce and meat in exchange for services, Bill Garhart said.
Dr. Garhart had to the raise the couple’s five children – Bill, Ted, Dan, Nanette and Virginia – and the farm was a major part of that effort. The children went to school in Seattle and spent their summers on the farm, which was gradually expanded during the years. And the different way of life was obvious.
“There were very few neighbors, just farmers,” Nanette said. “We learned to live off the land. That’s what our dad taught us. That’s what kept us together. It was wonderful.”
There were signs of civilization, however. There was a small general store that had a front porch and a crank phone at the corner of what is now the QFC shopping center, and another grocery store located near present-day Jackson High School. Next to their farm, there was a baseball diamond. The area had no official name, but was informally known as Wintermutes Corner.
“(The name) was on all the bus tickets that came out,” Bill said, reminiscing about how the Bothell-Everett Highway was the route the Greyhound busses used to take on their way from Seattle to Everett. The trips ended after Highway 99 was constructed. “They came three times a day, morning, noon and night.”
In addition to farms, there was some industry in the area, including a dynamite factory on the hill right behind where the Mill Creek Library stands today.
“We used to get dynamite from there to blow out tree stumps when we cleared land,” Bill said. “Then, we’d pull them out with our Belgian horses.”
Summers on the farm were an education in living away from modern conveniences.
“We would go to the store and use the crank phone,” Nanette said. “We would take the pony cart and go to the store if we had to call anybody.”
Each day in the summer, the children, along with hired hands, would milk cows, pick fruit and tend the vegetable fields, filbert trees and other livestock. Bill recalled how they would take the livestock into Seattle to the slaughterhouse.
“We were in downtown Seattle one time and our tailgate opened up, and we lost our load of pigs – right in front of the 5th Avenue Theatre,” he said. “Here we were, trying to gather up these pigs, and this guy was all dressed up, apparently going to the theater, and his wife’s yelling at him ‘don’t you gather up those pigs,’ and he was helping us round up those pigs and get them back into the truck.”
Much of what was grown on the farm was sold in markets in Everett and Edmonds. The family consumed some of it, and some products were sold to a Seattle restaurant owned by the Boldt family, which at one time owned Seattle’s Pacific Coast League baseball franchise.
During World War II, Bill worked in a Seattle shipyard, kept from military service by an injury suffered in a farm accident. He later worked for Boeing and continued to own and partially work the farm after his father died in 1960 in a hunting accident.
But the area around the farm was changing. What was known informally as the Martha Lake Road – present-day 164th Street SE – was paved in the 1950s. Farmers’ children also had no interest in continuing the hard lifestyle. The Garhart children were a perfect example, as all of them, with the exception of Bill, left Washington by the time they became adults.
The economy was also changing. Most produce came from California or elsewhere, making it harder for local farms to compete. Nearby pulp mills closed, diminishing the market for small timber operations. In addition, a hard freeze in November, 1952, killed most of the farm’s fruit trees; it would remain largely a cattle farm for the rest of its life.
“It split the trees open,” Bill said. “It was 10 below.”
In 1967 he decided it was time to sell the farm.
“We had a friend in California, Larry Plowman, who was a developer,” said Bill Garhart, who handled the sale of the farm, which by that time was 768 acres. “He needed a large piece of property, he was going to develop it and call it ‘Olympus.’ But Elmer Kearns was the one I sold it too. He and his son were buying up land.”
The property included much of present-day Mill Creek. It went as far west as what is today Ninth Avenue SE, south to Seattle Hill Road, and included much of the land that is the residential areas of the city.
Coming next week: The first subdivisions of Mill Creek and incorporation of the city.